ibn al-Muqaffa vigorously promoted Kalilah and Dimnah and himself

Kalilah and Dimah illustration from 13'th century Arabic manuscript

Kalilah and Dimnah, a book of practical wisdom, has been popular across Eurasia for more than a millennium.  In the mid-sixth century, royal physician Borzuya produced the first version.  Kalilah and Dimnah consisted mainly of Indian stories that Borzuya translated from Sanskrit into Middle Persian.  In the mid-eighth century, royal advisor ibn al-Muqaffa produced an Arabic version of Kalilah and Dimnah.[1]  Ibn al-Muqaffa, with a keen sense for his own position, promoted Kalilah and Dimnah vigorously.

Ibn al-Muqaffa began his introduction to Kalilah and Dimnah by evoking learned others.  Ibn al-Muqaffa wrote in the Arab-ruled Islamic Abbasid caliphate.  He came from a Persian, Zoroastrian family that was part of the conquered Sassanian regime.  Ibn al-Muqaffa was thus enmeshed in a political, cultural, and religious regime change.  The introduction to Kalilah and Dimnah begins:

The scholars of India compiled the book of fables, Kalilah and Dimnah.  It contains the most elegant proverbs, parables and analogies.  Scholars from various schools, after long toil, brought out the best of their thoughts and embodied them in a most creative manner.  This culmination of their deep reflection expressed their wisdom in fables using animals as their main characters. [2]

The Sassanian royal physician Borzuya actually compiled Kalilah and Dimnah.  Scholars of India were learned others without the status complications of the former Sassanian elite within the new Abbasid regime.  Recognizing Indian learning would be a step toward recognizing Sassanian learning.  That would be a step toward recognizing a distinctive area of ibn al-Muqaffa’s learning.[3]

While animal fables are frequently found in folktales, ibn al-Muqaffa emphasized the erudite learning contained within Kalilah and Dimnah.  Ibn al-Muqaffa implicitly recognized that Kalilah and Dimnah might be considered as containing only folktales:

The book of fables, Kalilah and Dimnah, is not written for entertainment only. … One ought not conclude that it is merely an assemblage of anecdotes about two animals [4]

Ibn al-Muqaffa described Kalilah and Dimnah as containing the best thoughts resulting from scholars’ long toil and deep reflections.  He urged intensive study of it:

The reader of Kalilah and Dimnah with all its fables should therefore spend careful and tireless time on understanding it.  … If one scrutinizes it thoroughly and meditates on the meanings embodied in the fables and analogies, he will surely become of the same mind.  The reader should therefore spend time on understanding every fable and every word in the book. [5]

According to ibn al-Muqaffa, success in reading Kalilah and Dimnah requires insight and comprehension:

Any persons who accumulates knowledge of the arts and sciences and spends his time reading books without patience and insight exhausts himself in vain. … A like frustration awaits anyone who reads this book of fables without comprehending both the apparent and implicit ideas within.  Such a reader will not benefit from the text on these pages, which offer no real value on their own except through the meaning they embody. … Reading Kalilah and Dimnah without insight will thus be time lost. [6]

Ibn al-Muqaffa’s introduction implicitly affirms that he understood the deep meanings of Kalilah and Dimnah.  Ibn al-Muqaffa thus positioned himself to serve as a tutor to a patron seeking to read it well.

Ibn al-Muqaffa described vaguely and abstractly the broad benefits of reading well Kalilah and Dimnah.  The benefits are as broad and vague as the appreciation of experience:

Whoever has learned from his own experience and that of others, and remembers and appreciates what he has learned, may appreciate these fables and take them to heart without knowing in advance how and when he will draw upon them.  He knows only that he has gained a variety of insights that could be useful at any opportune time. [7]

Ibn al-Muqaffa described the book as intended to appeal to everyone:

He who peruses this book should know that its intention is fourfold.  Firstly it was put into the mouths of dumb animals so that lighthearted youths might flock to read it and that their hearts be captivated by the rare ruses of the animals.  Secondly, it was intended to show the images of the animals in varieties of paints and colours so as to delight the hearts of princes, increase their pleasure, and also the degree of care which they would bestow on the work.  Thirdly, it was intended that the book be such that both kings and common folk should not cease to acquire it; that it might be repeatedly copied and re-created in the course of time thus giving work to the painter and copyist.  The fourth purpose of the work is to be of interest to philosophers in particular. [8]

According to the account of Borzuya’s journey to India, Borzuya produced Kalilah and Dimnah to provide immortality.  Ibn al-Muqaffa apparently added some additional chapters morally appealing from an Islamic perspective.  While illustrated books were well-known in Sassanian Persia, no direct evidence exists that Borzuya’s Kalilah and Dimnah was illustrated.  Illustrations help to make works popular.  Illustrations in Ibn al-Muqaffa’s version are consistent with his effort to make the work broadly appealing.[9]

Promoting Kalilah and Dimnah served ibn al-Muqaffa’s worldly interests.  Ibn al-Muqaffa lacked a high courtly position like Borzuya held when he created the Middle-Persian version of Kalilah and Dimnah. Ibn al-Muqaffa depended much more on success as an author.  While authors and publishers puffing books typically make money per copy sold, that almost surely wasn’t the case for ibn al-Muqaffa.  He most likely created the work for a specific patron.  Others who gained access to it could copy it without any payment to him.  However, personal status was key to scholars’ worldly success in the ancient Islamic world.  Ibn al-Muqaffa’s verion of Kalilah and Dimnah associated him with relatively attractive Indian learning.  At the same time, because its source was in Middle Persian, he had a comparative advantage in accessing it.  Ibn al-Muqaffa could cash out success as a source of Indian wisdom through patronage and position in the Abbasid court.  Relative to Borzuya’s new spiritual understanding of immortality, ibn al-Muqaffa’s worldly interests probably contributed more to generating Kalilah and Dimnah’s enduring popularity.

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[1] Borzuya produced the first, Middle-Persian version of Kalilah and Dimnah under Persian king Khosrau I (Anushirvan).  Anushirvan reigned from 531 to 579 GC.  Ibn al-Muqaffa was born to a noble Iranian family in Fars in 720 GC.  He died about 756.  He probably created his version of Kalilah and Dimnah about 750.  For the scant surviving biographical details about ibn al-Muqaffa, see the Encyclopedia of Islam.

[2] Abdullah ibn al-Muqaffa’s introduction, Kalilah and Dimnah, from Arabic trans. Jallad (2002) p. 29. Jallad’s translation is based on Silvestre de Sacy’s 1816 Arabic text, as printed in Egypt in 1817 (Bulaq imprint).

[3] István Kristó-Nagy and Jennifer London have explored ibn al-Muqaffa’s non-Arabic origin in relation to his political thought and position in Abbasid intellectual circles.  See, e.g. Kristó-Nagy (2009) and Kristó-Nagy’s forthcoming book, La Pensée d’ Ibn al-Muqaffa; and London (2008) and London’s forthcoming book, Autocracy and the Foreigner: The Political Thought of Ibn al-Muqaffa.  Ibn al-Muqaffa also had interests common to authors.  Careful consideration of author’s interests is crucial to understanding otherwise inexplicable behavior, e.g. publishing scholarly work in forms difficult and expensive for almost everyone to access.

[4] Id. pp. 34, 35.

[5] Id. pp. 35, 34. Ibn al-Muqaffa seems to have been aware of different styles of reading.  The difference between intensive and extensive reading now tends to be considered in relation to the proliferation of novels since the mid-18th century.

[6] Id. pp. 29, 30, 29.

[7] Id. p. 29.

[8] Trans. Rice (1959) pp. 208-9.  I’ve eliminated the translator’s parenthetical notes and adapted the last sentence slightly.  Jallad (2002), p. 36, provides a less literal translation.  The translation in Knatchbull (1819), p. 64, seems to be abridged.  It doesn’t include the references to images, painter, and copyist.  O’Kane (2003), p. 23, mis-transcribes Rice’s “rare ruses” as “rare uses.”

[9] The frequency and position of images in illustrated versions of Kalilah and Dimnah suggests that its most popular features were “rattling good yarns, sometimes laced with risqué elements (frequently explicitly illustrated in the manuscripts), which has always had most appeal.”  O’Kane (2003) p. 26.

[image] The King of the Crows conferring with his political advisors, from illustrated Arabic Kalilah and Dimnah manuscript dated c. 1210.  Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, via Wikipedia.


Jallad, Saleh Saʻadeh, trans. 2002. The fables of Kalilah and Dimnah. London: Melisende.

Knatchbull, Wyndham, trans. 1819. Kalila and Dimna, or, The Fables of Bidpai. Oxford: W. Baxter for J. Parker.

Kristó-Nagy, István T. 2009. “Reason, religion and power in ibn al-Muqaffa.” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae. 62 (3): 285-301.

London, Jennifer. 2008. “How to do things with fables: Ibn al-Muqaffa’s frank speech in stories from Kalīla wa Dimna.” History of Political Thought. 29 (2): 189-212.

O’Kane, Bernard. 2003. Early Persian painting: Kalila and Dimna manuscripts of the late fourteenth century. London: I.B. Tauris.

Rice, D. S. 1959. “The Oldest Illustrated Arabic Manuscript.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. 22 (1/3): 207-220.